Just over nine years ago I became a parent for the first time.
It was a difficult birth but when I eventually woke up properly, it was instant love. We had a gorgeous baby boy and we were thrilled.
But Zac wasn’t an easy baby. He slept a lot, but when he was awake he was often unhappy. Grizzly, crying. Shrieking. He didn’t like loud noises, cafes, or bright lights. He liked constant movement. He was the most challenging baby in my mother’s group. He didn’t take to food when all of the other babies did, so I kept on breastfeeding until he was 19 months old, trying to give him some goodness.
His speech seemed delayed too. He was the kid who was always doing something wrong – fighting with other kids, having meltdowns, walking in the opposite direction to everyone else. He was always the kid by himself at the park, collecting trash and treasure and filling his pockets.
Eventually, at four, we had him assessed. I sensed something wasn’t quite right, but I still thought it might be because we were anxious first-time older parents.
I remember being shocked – but also a bit relieved – when a psychologist sat us down after three sessions and said, no beating around the bush:
“Zac has Asperger Syndrome, and moderate to severe Aspergers, at that.”
Our world came crashing down. I’d harboured a secret suspicion about Autism, but still I didn’t want to believe it. My husband didn’t want to believe it. “He’s just like I was as a child,” he argued. “Labelling is not going to help him.”
Actually, it did help us enormously. It helped us access more support. It helped us understand our son better. We did years of early intervention, which cost us a fortune, and was difficult to fit in as a family, but which made all the difference.
Today Zac is a unique – wonderfully unique – nine year old, supported at his local public primary school by a part-time integration aide. He’s doing gymnastics (again with extra support), keyboard, and swimming lessons (more about that later) and he reads and navigates the computer like a whiz. Now, he’s more at the centre of his classroom rather than on the outskirts.
When Zac was seven, he came across a DVD about Asperger Syndrome. He wanted to know what it was, and wouldn’t be put off. “This is it,” I thought. “This is the moment when I tell my son.” I took a deep breath. If anyone saw the episode of Parenthood where the parents tell their son Max that he has Aspergers…I did a whole lot better than they did on their first attempt!
I said: “Zac, Aspergers is part of the Autistic Spectrum. People with Aspergers often have amazing brains – they’re just wired a little differently. And they can do some amazing things with their brains, like invent things like Thomas Edison who invented the light bulb, and they often start to read early. And they usually have a special interest that nobody else does. But because of their brain they may also struggle with some things, like making friends. Like loud noises, or tastes and smells, and they may be a bit clumsy so they’re not usually good at sport.”
Zac looked at me intently, quivering with excitement, and said: “Mummy, mummy! I think I have Asperger Syndrome!”
And I was able to give him a big high five and say, just as excitedly: “Yes Zac, that’s right, you DO have Asperger Syndrome”.
Life hasn’t been easy for Zac. And it’s not always easy for us, as his parents, or for Bianca, his younger sister. He requires more support than you or I to get involved in things many of us take for granted.
Late last year we were at a friend’s house, who has a swimming pool. There were heaps of kids there, in and out of the pool. But not Zac. Couldn’t even get him near it. And Bianca was hanging onto the edges, too.
You see, Zac got kicked out of his swimming lessons when he was six. He kept clashing with another kid. And because Zac got kicked out, Bianca missed out too.
It was after that afternoon at the friend’s pool, that I got my kids into aquatic education at Kensington Community Recreation Centre. Megan organised individual lessons for Zac, as part of their wonderful special needs program, and found another time for Bianca who fitted nicely into a group of same-aged kids.
Bec and Erin are the wonderful young aquatic education teachers who have each worked with Zac. He LOVES his lessons, and it’s simply amazing to me to see his progress each week.
Bianca, too, is shining…..
Next summer when we take our kids to the pool, or the beach, we’ll all be able to enjoy ourselves a whole lot more, confident that our kids are acquiring the life skills they need to enjoy themselves and be safe around water.
And this is what the YMCA does best. We provide opportunities for everyone. And we recognise that some members of our community who are doing it tough need extra support in order to be able to participate. And we raise funds for this.
I’m proud to work for the Y, and every one of you should know that you truly make a difference, no matter what your role is. We all help people, families and communities become stronger. If we’re stronger, we’re better friends, better parents, better employees, better members of our community.
That’s why it’s important that we continue to find ways to raise funds so that the thousands of Victorians who are currently unable to participate due to their disability, income or cultural background, are given the opportunity. We have supported 12,000 people over the past four years through YMCA Open Doors. Think about the ripple effects of that! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.